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Diminishing Access to Abortion in New Brunswick Should Have Canadians Concerned

Fredericton’s Clinic 554 is looking into a potential class-action lawsuit over abortion access in the province. This is the latest in a string of desperate measures by the clinic and abortion rights groups to ensure basic access to the surgical procedure in New Brunswick.

The Big Picture: Premier Blaine Higgs, who has publicly attended anti-abortion rallies, is taking steps to limit access to free and safe abortion, this includes:

  • Reducing the number of hospitals allowing the procedure,
  • Denying reimbursement to the only clinic which do so, and
  • Leaving the procedure either too far away to access or too expensive for many women in the province to afford.

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Access to abortion in Canada was decriminalized in 1988 following a supreme court decision brought by the original owner of Clinic 554, Canadian abortion rights activist Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

  • Under the Canada Health Act, abortion is supposed to be free and guaranteed.
  • Yet, provinces were given jurisdiction over the issue, allowing them to determine how many weeks into a pregnancy an abortion could occur.

While abortions are legal, access to them is not guaranteed. Only four years ago, it was impossible to get a surgical abortion anywhere in Prince Edward Island.

  • Doctors are allowed to hold conscientious objection in Canada, which allows them to refuse to provide treatment for personal or religious reasons.

This has been problematic in provinces like New Brunswick where many hospitals are Catholic and refuse to provide treatment.

  • While one can call for a referral to clinics, it is necessary to get blood-work and an ultrasound before getting an abortion which can be denied.
  • So even though the abortion pill Mifegymiso is available in the province, it is rarely prescribed by doctors who hold a conscientious objection to the procedure.

New Brunswick is the only province that does not cover the cost of abortion outside of a hospital.

  • New Brunswick has seen a drastic decrease in hospitals offering surgical abortions, from 8 in the 1980s to just 3 today (two of which being in Moncton).
  • This has drastically increased the distance for which people must travel for the procedure. The pandemic has also made travel much more difficult.

Clinic 554 in the capital of Fredericton is a family doctor that includes all scopes of medicine, with a focus on reproductive, trans*, LGBT/Queer, and HIV care. It is also the only facility in the province which offers surgical abortions outside of hospitals, but it has come under sustained financial strain.

  • The provincial government has refused to reimburse the clinic for surgical procedures performed which costs $700-$850 in out-of-pocket payments for Dr. Adrian Edgar and his clinic after every procedure.
  • This is because the province claims the clinic is not a hospital, even though it serves as a family care outlet for many patients.
  • Due to this lack of funding or reimbursement, the clinic has been forced to shut down, and only has enough funds to operate until the end of September – unless changes are made by the provincial government.

The clinic has provided over 1000 abortions since 2015, as well as regular medical care to 600 patients, many of whom are transgender and could face discrimination at other facilities if Clinic 554 closes for good.

Premier Blaine Higgs, who has been in power since 2018, says he has no plans to improve abortion access in New Brunswick, claiming that the procedure is “very accessible here in the province”.

  • He believes funding abortion in clinics would erode the public health-care system despite also admitting that the Clinic 554’s doctor “is able to practice like any other physician for services that are provided and covered under the public health act”

Higgs’ personal desire to inhibit women in the province from seeking an abortion was demonstrated when he attended and spoke at a 2017 right to life rally.

  • He was joined by several ministers from his government, including health minister Ted Flemming & women’s equality minister Sherry Wilson

Federal Government intervention?

  • During the 2019 federal election, Justin Trudeau promised that a re-elected Liberals government would stand up for abortion rights in New Brunswick, even stating that his government would come to the rescue of Clinic 554.
  • However, as the Clinic faces a permanent shutdown, the government’s help is nowhere to be found.

In 2020, the federal government took away $140,000 in health transfer payments to New Brunswick for failing to provide adequate abortion access. This represented the out of pocket payments which New Brunswickers had spent at Clinic 554 in 2017.

  • However, the government gave that money back to New Brunswick following pressure on the health system during COVID-19. New Brunswick received $860 million in health transfer payments in 2020.

The Bottom Line: The diminishing access to abortions in New Brunswick is extremely troubling, especially for low-income women in New Brunswick who struggle to travel long distances and pay high costs for surgical abortions.

  • The closure of Clinic 554 would force women in New Brunswick’s capital or even its biggest city of St Johns to travel more than 1.5 hours to the closest hospital which allows the procedure. For those further north, the trip will be even further.
  • Clinic 554 also provides a safe space for many members of the lgbtqia2+ to access treatments that are often difficult to find in the socially conservative province. The shutting down of the clinic for lack of healthcare funding in a country that prides itself on free healthcare is concerning.

Without any form of government intervention, the only chance for the clinic to stay afloat now rests on a potential class-action lawsuit being brought by Clinic 554 against the New Brunswick government for limiting abortion access.


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